No stop to slums in the sky
Chris Vedelago, Cameron Houston
03 May 2016
Melbourne City Council has conceded it is powerless to stop
unscrupulous landlords and tenants from creating the same slum-like
housing conditions in the CBD's high-rises that contributed to the
Docklands apartment tower blaze last year.
Extraordinary images obtained by The Sunday Age reveal that up to a
dozen overseas students and suspected illegal workers had been crammed
into two-bedroom apartments in the Lacrosse tower on Latrobe Street.
Some residents were sleeping on balconies in Lacrosse tower.
Photographs taken after the fire show residents were also sleeping on
mattresses on open-air balconies, while some living rooms had been
partitioned with curtains to accommodate more people.
The Sunday Age understands that Asian students and workers are being
enticed by greedy operators who advertise beds for rent on
accommodation sites including AirBnB, Gumtree and Chinese-language
A living room cordoned off to create an additional bedroom.
The admission from city authorities that overcrowding is "almost
impossible to police" has prompted Melbourne City Council and the
Metropolitan Fire Brigade to call for new enforcement powers from the
"This has been an issue that our firefighters have observed in other
buildings and the recommendations we have made in the post-incident
analysis to [the Lacrosse] fire are designed to address the public
safety issue," MFB chief officer Peter Rau told The Sunday Age.
The MFB report found the blaze took just 11 minutes to engulf one side
of the 23-storey building after a discarded cigarette left on an eighth
floor balcony set alight the cheap, fire-prone cladding used on the
exterior of the Latrobe Street building.
converted into illegal rooming houses
During the evacuation, firefighters discovered that a number of
two-bedroom units had been converted into illegal rooming houses, with
some packed with up to eight mattresses.
"Overall, the building did not have excessive occupancy levels but in
some individual apartments this was certainly an issue," Mr Rau said.
"Some of these apartments had up to four beds and mattresses in each
Smoke alarms in many of these units had been disabled or disconnected
Smoke alarms in many of these units had been disabled or disconnected,
while public spaces reserved for fire extinguishers were blocked by
luggage and boxes.
The fire extinguisher cupboard in a Docklands apartment was used to store tenants' belongings.
Residents had also stored masses of clothing, cardboard, furniture,
appliances and other combustible materials on some balconies, which
authorities say contributed to the spread of the fire.
dangerous slum-like conditions
But a report by the council's Municipal Building Surveyor has warned
that building and safety regulations are incapable of stopping
operators from creating these dangerous slum-like conditions.
At present, limits can be set on the number of people per floor but not per apartment.
"The current legislation makes this part of the occupancy permit ...
almost impossible to police, monitor or require compliance with,"
surveyor Giuseppe Genco wrote.
It is unclear how many people were actually living in Lacrosse, with
estimates ranging from 400 to 500 based on counts taken during and
after the evacuation.
Mr Genco also reported that the City of Melbourne's enforcement
activities were being disrupted by underground rooming-house operators
that use "stalling tactics" to prevent safety inspectors from catching
them in the act.
"Access rights require a minimum of 24 hours [notice to enter an
apartment for an inspection], by which time the owner or leasee would
most likely have removed beds, screens, etc, in order to show that it
was compliant with the legislation," Mr Genco wrote.
A City of Melbourne spokesman said better enforcement arrangements "are the state government's responsibility".
"The City Of Melbourne urges the government to consider these matters
and other matters raised in the MBS's report, and is willing to
co-operate in any way possible to make this happen," he said.
The MFB is also recommending a review of the legislation in light of the Lacrosse fire.
"Further work needs to be done to better understand if tenancy levels
can be monitored or regulated to avoid over-tenanting," Mr Rau said.
But Mark O'Brien, chief executive of the Tenants Union of Victoria,
cautioned that any changes must uphold the rights of owners and renters.
"The idea that authorities could get increased powers to enter homes
without permission would have to be balanced with some very strong
protections and oversight."
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